No Olympic sport is more maddening than ping-pong (I refuse to call it “table tennis.”) The way the ball will just nick the corner of the table can drive anyone mad — especially poets, who are sensitive people by nature.
Kenneth Koch was probably one of the best ping-pong playing poets ever. Had there been an Olympic event combining the two disciplines, I’m certain Koch would have taken home the gold medal. I’m also certain he would have loved the challenge of playing ping-pong while reciting improvised sonnets, or whatever. Well, we will see that in the Upper World!
But Koch was not beyond criticism as a ping-pong player. I’m still kicking myself that I did not actually see the match, but I recall speaking with David Shapiro shortly after he had played Koch in the basement of the now-disappeared Ferris Booth Hall at Columbia. Koch had won the game, but David felt — and I’m sure he was correct about this — that Koch had, um, bent the rules a little. Specifically, it was my impression that Koch had tried to create distractions while the ball was in David’s court, and I recall David using the term “flapping ostrich.”
In Koch’s defense, he very often acted like a flapping ostrich — so should he be expected to stop acting like one when he played ping-pong? We’ll have to leave that question to a higher authority. Actually, I believe Koch was also a pitcher on his high school baseball team (Walnut Hills HS, in Cincinnati) and I’m sure his wind-up was a sight to behold. In any case, I happen to believe that Koch was the greatest poet of the New York school, and I’m absolutely certain that he was the best ping-pong player. (But there were probably some good players among the Beats.)
(Ed note: A version of this post originally appeared on Wednesday, August 13, 2008)